Grapefruits and Grapes

Part two of a series evaluating the media’s performance during the 2004 campaign.

By Zachary Roth

As the election year accelerated and campaign rhetoric grew more heated, reporters found themselves in a bind. Clinging to a constrictive notion of objectivity, and looking apprehensively over their shoulders for angry charges of bias from partisan readers, they often resorted to a technique known in journalistic circles as “false equivalence.”

Along with failing to fact-check competing claims, false equivalence belongs in the trash heap of discredited journalistic shortcuts, but in the final weeks of the election campaign reporters began relying on the practice as a protective shield. In its most common form, it amounts to a reporter holding up actions on both sides as equally blameworthy, when it’s clear that no such equivalence exists. The classic parody of false equivalence:

To be sure, Candidate X is a mass murderer, but it’s worth keeping in mind that Candidate Y is a serial jaywalker.

To save you further pain, we’ll give you just two real-life examples.

Just days before the election, in an October 27 story headlined “As a Final Gambit, Parties are Trying to Damp Turnout,” John Harwood of the Wall Street Journal wrote: “Both camps are doing what they can, in ways both overt and subtle, to convince the other side’s supporters that they shouldn’t bother voting in the first place.”

For example, says Harwood, “Democrats say they see suppression efforts in Republicans’ well-advertised plans to vigorously check the registrations of those who show up to vote. In their eyes, such efforts are designed to convince voters that trying to cast a ballot will be too much of a hassle. ‘They’re trying to scare decided voters away from going to the polls,’ former President Bill Clinton declared this week.”

On the other side, Harwood writes, “Republicans see suppression efforts in Democrats’ attempts to sow doubts about Mr. Bush’s character and his fealty to social conservatives. They believe Democrats will use the Internet to spread fresh rumors about Mr. Bush’s youthful behavior among conservative Christians. Bush strategists saw a similar effort when both John Edwards and John Kerry went out of their way in the recent debate series to mention the fact that Mary Cheney, the vice president’s daughter, is gay.”

Huh? The first example is a case of what Democrats would argue is unlawful voter suppression. In Florida in 2000, thousands of African-Americans were wrongly denied the chance to cast ballots. Even Republican operatives would define their intention less as “to convince the other side’s supporters that they shouldn’t bother voting in the first place,” as Harwood had put it, than as actively preventing them from doing so.

Harwood’s second example, by contrast, is simply negative campaigning. Harwood may find it dismaying that campaigns sometimes design messages that are intended to reduce turnout among the opponents’ supporters, rather than to increase it among their backers. But that’s hardly the same thing as actively, and perhaps illegally, working to prevent people from voting.

Harwood’s equation of voter suppression with negative campaigning is bad enough. But the first paragraph off a September 25 story by Ron Edmonds of the Associated Press, is perhaps the best illustration of the paralyzing state of insecurity under which the political press currently labors, and the torturous knots into which it twists itself to avoid the appearance of bias. Under the even-handed headline, “Bush, Kerry, Twisting Each Other’s Words,” Edmonds wrote:

President Bush opened several new scathing lines of attack against Democrat John Kerry, charges that twisted his rival’s words on Iraq and made Kerry seem supportive of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein. It was not unlike the spin that Kerry and his forces sometimes place on Bush’s words.

Let’s look at what the AP found. Most of the story focuses on Bush’s distortions, for example that he said Kerry “would prefer the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein to the situation in Iraq today.” As the AP notes, Kerry never said that. Instead, he called Saddam “a brutal dictator who deserves his own special place in hell,” and added, “the satisfaction we take in his downfall does not hide this fact: We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure.”

According to the AP, Bush also attacked Kerry for referring in stump speeches to countries allied with the U.S. in Iraq as “the alliance of the coerced and the bribed.” The president added: “You can’t build alliances if you criticize the efforts of those who are working side by side with you.” But as the AP rightly points out, the gist of “Kerry’s criticism … has not been aimed at the countries that have contributed a relatively small number of troops and resources, but at the administration for not gaining more participation from other nations.”

What did AP find on the other side of the ledger? Here’s its one example:

Just Friday, the Kerry campaign sent an e-mail to supporters entitled “He said what?” citing Bush’s remark that he had seen “a poll that said the right track/wrong track in Iraq was better than here in America.”

The e-mail from campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill accused the president of having “no plan to get us out of Iraq” and thinking “the future of Iraq is brighter than the future of America.”

Bush has a plan for Iraq — Kerry just disagrees that it is working. And the president wasn’t comparing Iraq’s future to that of the United States, only accurately reflecting one recent survey in Iraq and the latest trends in America that asked participants for their assessment of the direction their countries are going.

But is this comparable to the distortions on the other side? Accusing the president of having “no plan to get us out of Iraq” is not a case of twisting anyone’s words. In fact, Bush has explicitly avoided laying out any sort of exit timetable or plan, choosing instead the assertive, albeit vague, “We will stay the course.” Cahill was simply spinning a piece of campaign rhetoric of the type both camps used countless times each day.

Accusing Bush of thinking that “the future of Iraq is brighter than the future of America,” is indeed a distortion of the president’s meaning. Bush wasn’t referring to his own feelings, but to those attributed to the Iraqi populace by a pollster. He was trying to make the case that Iraqis are more optimistic about Iraq’s future than Americans are. But as the AP notes, the twist came not from Kerry, but from a Kerry campaign aide, in an email to supporters. That’s simply not as significant as a statement made by a candidate himself as a linchpin a campaign speech that he knows is being covered by local and national news media. Context matters, and it’s clear in this case that the intent to publicly deceive voters about the other candidate was more egregious in Bush’s case than in Kerry’s.

Both of these cases of false balance exemplify the same basic problem. In each case, the reporter may have set out to write a legitimate news story that covered an important development (Democratic accusations of unlawful voter suppression, and President Bush’s distortions of his opponent’s meaning). But both reporters, or perhaps their editors, appear to have been so gun-shy about accusations of bias that they ended up stretching to come up with equivalent examples of bad behavior from the other side. They then frame their stories to imply that both sides are equally culpable, even though the facts don’t support that conclusion.

This search for the elusive quality called “balance” also leaves many a reporter at sea when faced with this situation: Candidate Y is caught out in a lie five times a week, whereas Candidate X publicly commits an untruth twice a week. The reporter who dutifully notes each of the seven misstatements over the course of the week risks leaving the impression that he is gunning for Y — or taking it easy on X. So we end up with stories equating grapefruits with grapes.

In the end, this reflexive need to “balance” each and every observation, even if there is no equivalent sin being committed by the other side, makes it impossible for the press to hold campaigns accountable or to present readers and viewers with a coherent roadmap as to what exactly is going on.

David Shaw, press critic for the Los Angeles Times, observed (in a column about Campaign Desk, as it happens) that 50 years ago, in the aftermath of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts, many in the news media belatedly lamented their failure to uncover McCarthy for just what he was. By simply printing McCarthy’s fervid charges, no matter how farfetched or unsubstantiated, and then tacking alongside the denials of the accused — without any attempt to evaluate either — the equivalence-seeking press unwittingly gave life to McCarthy’s ugly campaign.

Fifty years later, we saw the campaign press lapse into the same defensive practice. As long as each side in the political contest knows that the refs will bend over backward to give the appearance of being evenhanded by calling offsetting penalties all the game long, there’s no reason for either team to play fair.

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.